A New Year’s Eve Interview With Deer Tick
Hours before taking the stage on New Year’s Eve, Deer Tick settled in for a soundcheck at a midsized club in Harvard Square, which is the kind of neighborhood whose trajectory mirrors the issues the band has with the music industry itself: What was once hip and ready to take risks is now safe, stuffy and far from the kind of place that once gave The Clash a platform.
Cambridge, Massachusetts is just an hour up the road from where most of Deer Tick grew up in Providence, Rhode Island and plenty of friends and family attended the New Year’s show. Dennis Ryan (drums/vocals), Chris Ryan (bass/vocals) and John McCauley III (guitar/vocals/piano) are all Providence natives, while Ian O’Neil (guitar/vocals) from Springfield, Massachusetts — as McCauley reminded the crowd — is the sole Masshole in the group. They’re essentially the same guys I interviewed for JamBase a decade prior, but their collective modus operandi sure has changed.
By their own account, they’d spent the better part of the last decade drinking and destroying their way across the country as they built the reputation for Deer Tick they thought a rock band should have. While they’ve eased off their destructive bent, Deer Tick still has an outlaw aura their fans adore and concert promoters would be wise to insure.
A countdown clock frozen at four hours was projected onto the back of the stage while they thoroughly ran through every mic, line and input for a venue they’d just played the night before. Soundcheck lasted the better part of an hour and its meticulousness was emblematic of their changing views on professionalism and what that means when your job is to be a rockstar. The maturity and pseudo-sobriety they’ve grown into made them a tighter live act by any measure and for both shows, their sets felt like they were flying by the seat of their pants, but with a clear method to the madness that previously came off as just madness.
Prior to the New Year’s show, I spoke to the four members of the band at a table in the restaurant upstairs for an interview that covered the status of a new album, offensive Christmas music, hanging out of hotel windows and the artistic dynamics within the band itself. That said, as we sat there, waiting for an influx of 525 ticketholders ready to close out 2019, getting retrospective couldn’t be avoided. The end of a decade might be an excuse for making “Best Of” lists but there’s nothing like the end of a quantifiable era to reflect on who we once were and what we’ve become.
JamBase: I did a lot of interviews with you guys in 2009 and even though I saw a ton of shows, I hadn’t seen you live since. Last night I felt like I was watching a different band. I’m wondering if you guys agree with that or think of Deer Tick as the same as it ever was?
John: I think if we were the same band as we were 10 years back, it would be pretty startling [laughs].
JamBase: The Foo Fighters have basically been the exact same band for 25 years and nobody is too startled by that …
Ian: Hey! They sound a little different! We saw them recently.
Dennis: They did a nine-minute song. What was the song they played for like nine minutes and then Taylor Hawkins went into the sky and did a drum solo?
JamBase: He did a Tommy Lee Thing?
Dennis: Pretty much.
John: No rollercoaster.
Dennis: But he was way up in the air!
John: We just kind of follow our instincts. We grew up in different rock and punk scenes. Metal, noise … So really our first album was me trying something different for the first time. But my truest influences really got back into the music I’m making now, which does include blues and country and whatever else falls under that Americana umbrella if you will, all of the stuff I was exposed to as a kid.
Chris: The band has also expanded and contracted. We’ve been this lineup for 10 years. One person came and went in that time as well [keyboardist Robert Crowell]. Other than that it’s just the obvious fact that we’re 10 years older now than we were in ’09.
Dennis: I think in your question, if you were going to take a snapshot of then and now, you’d say, “That’s crazy different,” but from the inside it feels like a very natural progression because to feel fulfilled you need to explore your creativity.
JamBase: What kind of exploration have you done?
Dennis: Well, there’s personal and professional [exploration].
Chris: I don’t think any of us would be doing this if it felt stagnate. Sometimes that means taking a completely different take on something we’ve been doing for a while or doing it the same way we’ve always done but better.
Ian: I think we’ve developed our talent and craft just as much as we’ve explored new ideas, but we’ve definitely gotten better at playing music.
John: I think I’ve gotten about two years better as a guitarist than I was 10 years ago [laughs]. My journey with this band has been heavily focused on my skills as an instrumentalist and all the different things I play in the band. My main thing is guitar but I’ve been playing a lot of Irish bouzouki and piano which is something that’s been fun to work on. Over the past couple of years alone I’ve gone from a really, really bad piano player to an OK one.
JamBase: I’m the same age as you guys and when I think about who I was in 2009, I was 23. I was basically a kid. We’re adults now. Two of you have kids of your own. You’re different people than you were when you were 23 and when I listen to my favorite Deer Tick song, “Christ Jesus,” which always struck me as an especially tortured song, as a guy in a different place than when it was written and recorded, how do you feel playing that song every night? Do you have to sink back into your 23-year-old self? Is there a place you have to take yourself in order to channel that artistic force or is playing older songs something you can simply do on autopilot?
John: Well for that song in particular, I think it’s pretty easy to go there because of how despicable the Catholic Church is. [laughs] So that’s not hard for me.
JamBase: Welcome to Boston: hashtag spotlight.
John: The old tunes don’t mean the same thing they used to but I’ve always tried … early on I always wanted to write stuff that could be left open to interpretation. A lot of people get a lot of different things out of my songs and I guess now I’m among those folks.
JamBase: Do you guys feel like you have an “Enter Sandman” that you have to play every night?
John: There are a few where we think there will be a revolt if we don’t play it.
JamBase: Like what?
[Whole Band]: “Ashamed.”
John: Although we have done shows without it as an experiment and the world kept turning.
Chris: I also think we’re at a place in the band where we’ve balanced doing the things we want to do to please ourselves while giving the fan base what they want to hear. We have a sprawling catalog at this point and we just hope that what we think is great, the fans will think is great too.
Dennis: That’s what I was thinking regarding your question about “Christ Jesus.” It seems like the songs that have resonated throughout the years end up finding their way into the sets. So that’s sort of a barometer for us of what makes sense to play at our current age and what doesn’t connect in the same way.
JamBase: What are the dynamics like for you guys as individual songwriters? These days you all take turns at the mic but 2008’s War Elephant was all John, right?
John: There were a few other musicians who played on it but none of these fellas. And I guess I’m the only one who sang on it, or on the following two records.
JamBase: Was there an active effort to make Deer Tick more democratic or did it just happen?
Ian: I won’t speak for John but we don’t record or put stuff on the record if we don’t think they’re worth the space.
Dennis: I feel like John has greatly encouraged me, and Ian as well, to write songs and that was really nice because I probably wouldn’t have but he really pushed me and that was a really big deal for me.
John: I’ve always been a big fan of bands with multiple lead singers. I always wanted a band like that for myself but generally we wouldn’t go into a recording project unless I felt like I had enough songs to fill a record.
JamBase: You personally?
John: Yeah. Then I’ll be like, “Dennis and Ian, what have you got? Chris have you written a song yet?”
Chris: “No, not yet!”
JamBase: With respect to your friendship and working relationships, I don’t know if it’s an LLC or what but Deer Tick is literally a business. John, are you the CEO?
John: We all hold very high positions [band laughs]. We are all equals.
Chris: We each hold 25% of the LLC.
Ian: We tend to make decisions together. If one of us has a very strong opinion on not wanting to do something we generally respect that as much as we can.
JamBase: How do you break a tie?
Ian: I think we differ to [whoever has] the strongest feeling.
Dennis: Yeah, definitely.
Ian: Out of everyone I’d say John has the strongest feelings on things, which makes sense because he started the band so it makes sense for him to have the most disdain for doing something morally compromising.
JamBase: What’s an example of that?
Ian: I don’t know, playing for Madewell or something like that. Corporate stuff.
John: We used to do a lot of that stuff back in the day because we felt like we had no choice but to do it, which was a big mistake on our part. But we’ve also done some very hilarious things to screw up relationships with companies.
[Dennis laughs hysterically]
John: Like playing stumbling drunk at a T Mobile event and getting the crowd to chant, “Fuck T Mobile.”
JamBase: You got the crowd to chant Fuck T Mobile at a T Mobile event? There have to be a few more stories like this.
Ian: Sure. The people who got us these shows are very nice people so I don’t want to be too mean but we got a gig playing the Christmas party of this big marketing firm in New York City and we just played Christmas songs.
John: We played our Christmas songs.
Ian: Yeah we played our Christmas songs and not everybody likes them.
JamBase: Deer Tick originals?
Ian: Yeah, yeah they’re all online. I encourage everyone to give them a spin. There’s one called, “Holy Shit! It’s Christmas” and one called, “Christmas All Summer Long.”
JamBase: What’s the proudest you’ve ever been for pissing somebody off? If you’ve each got a different answer, that’s absolutely acceptable.
Chris: I know there is a perfect answer to this question but I can’t think of what it is.
John: I like how some of the stories don’t even seem real to me anymore. I just don’t behave like that anymore. I still feel like I’m in my 20s, I just feel like a more well behaved 20-year-old. I don’t think we ever did anything with malicious intent to piss people off, just things that happened because … well, I love to drink and I loved to mix drink with whatever else I could ingest.
Dennis: I was reflecting on this with my wife last night. What used to fuck me up when I was drunk was thinking things were objectively funny but in my rational state, I’m not going to throw all this stuff out the window because it’s funny, but that used to happen to me a lot. I’d just get to this point where I’d say, “I’ll just throw everything out the window,” and that was very stupid and irresponsible.
John: But still funny.
Dennis: But still funny! So that was the problem I got into: When something was objectively funny but I was too far gone to couple that from reality.
Chris: The T Mobile thing, or any time we trolled a corporation by being silly, it was all just silliness because when you’re a young band in the music industry [and] these industry people back you into a corner and make you feel like you have to do things and we were allergic to that.
John: We were always booked for shows with very safe bands and we fucking hated it and we wanted to bring some danger wherever we went and we succeeded.
JamBase: What are those safe bands?
Ian: I don’t want to bring other peoples bands into this.
John: We thought, “We are a band on tour we should be drunk all the time and leave a trail of destruction everywhere we go. Let’s make a name for ourselves that way.” It just felt — we felt like misfits within whatever scene bookers or agents wanted to put us in and we acted accordingly.
Dennis: I don’t know about safe, but there were a lot of serious people and we’re goofy and like to have fun, and like John says, party, and that made it hard for us to get a seat at the table because we might be too weird for these people or too fucked up for those people. A lot of people take themselves too serious, which is their prerogative.
John: We probably seem like super boring and safe people to some other young band right now.
JamBase: Yeah, John, the last time I interviewed you I asked you how you’d deal with the trappings of fame and you said “I’ll just whip my dick out.”
JamBase: “I’ll just whip my dick out and people will take pictures of it and the value of those pictures will go down and eventually nobody will care about taking my picture anymore.”
John: That’s a good strategy.
Dennis: Yeah, that’s not bad.
John: I think I was on to something there.
JamBase: You guys are reminding me of that story about Neil Young getting flack by Geffen Records for making a new wave album, saying they expected a rock ‘n’ roll record. So he said, “fuck you” by taking them super literally and making a rockabilly record.
Dennis: [Laughs] Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! We’ve all got a little bit of that in us. If you tell us left, we’ll turn right.
JamBase: Ian and John, as fathers who literally have to correct the behavior of your children, do you ever feel weird going so left field on purpose or has fatherhood not impacted that dynamic in the band?
John: [Laughs] I’d definitely say I engage in less self-destructive behavior or things that put me at risk of death.
John: Much less.
Ian: Are you asking if we have families are we more afraid to go left field with our music or with behavior?
JamBase: I guess the question can apply both ways. Having more responsibility makes it harder to take risks, whatever the risks are. You’re not just thinking about yourself because there are other people to consider. With that said, I was just talking about you guys being a fun loving, punk ethos band, but if the questions applies creatively, then sure, does it change things?
Ian: I don’t think so.
Dennis: Just less jumping from balcony to balcony. There used to be risky stuff like that but now …
John: We used to just hang from hotel windows, like going outside the building and holding onto the windowsill by our fingertips drunk. Like really drunk.
Chris: Or we’d walk from room to room from the outside, walking on the windowsill.
John: That would never cross my mind today.
Dennis: Exactly. But creatively, I don’t think that comes into the picture at all.
John: Creatively, we still jump out the window.
Dennis: I feel more at liberty to do that now because we trust ourselves more than ever.
JamBase: Sure, last night you guys played a lot of different kinds of songs and the crowd sang along to all of them. The people buying tickets and records are giving you guys the green light to jump out the window.
Dennis: That’s what’s important.
Ian: There’s also a mutual trust these days with our fan base and as long as we can keep that trust, we’re on solid ground for ourselves and our families.
JamBase: What’s the biggest jump you guys have taken lately?
Dennis: The studio?
John: Yeah building a studio. In Nashville.
JamBase: John, I know you’re in based in Nashville now, are the rest of you guys still in New England?
Dennis: We meet up once a month and since August we’ve been building it up. Now it’s running and flowing and we’ve got a handful of super cool songs I’m excited about and it’s some of the most exciting music I’ve been a part of. We get to go down there as friends with nobody else there except the four of us and we’re writing stuff that moves us and that’s really cool.
Ian: It’s more collaborative than ever because we all have pieces of ideas we’re helping each other finish.
John: We’ve never had a clubhouse before. Now we have our own little clubhouse.
JamBase: Are you guys actively working on a new record at the clubhouse?
Chris: We’re working on the demos.
John: I don’t know if we’ll end up doing it ourselves but we have a goal for how many songs we want written and then we’ll decide if it’s something we want to try on our own or if we will start looking for a producer.
Ian: Or multiple producers.
JamBase: Well it’s New Year’s Eve. What are your goals of 2020?
Chris: Make it into 2020
Dennis: I like that one.
Ian: I’d say the album. We can’t do much except fly around and play one-offs until we put our nose to the grindstone.
JamBase: No tours between now and the release of a full length album?
John: Only if we got some big idea.
Chris: Or got invited to play support for a big tour — like for the Foo Fighters.
JamBase: I just remembered John did a show with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic where you played Nirvana songs. Are you guys going to tell on me now?
John: No, but they might read this.
Dennis: They might read JamBase!
JamBase: What were some highlights of 2019?
Ian: We did a great tour with Courtney Marie Andrews. We played in a cave.
JamBase: How’d it sound?
Ian: It sounded surprisingly good. I thought it would be an echo chamber but it sounded great.
John: The cave was awesome.
Dennis: Was it this year or last year when we saw the Foo Fighters?
Chris: You mean when Little Baby John played in front of 30,000 people? That was awesome!
Dennis: It was so cool!
Chris: You don’t get a chance to feel so proud of your friends that often.
John: But that wasn’t in 2019.
JamBase: That’s fine, if it’s a good story let’s hear it.
John: They’re talking about in 2018 when I played with Dave and Krist and did Nirvana songs at Cal Jam.
Ian: What else happened in 2019?
John: Well, Newport. We announced 2020 will be our last year of doing Newport Folk After Parties.
JamBase: I’ve had multiple people specifically tell me to bring this up. Why are you calling it quits on the Blues Café shows?
John: We feel it’s run its course and we want to see what someone else does with it.
Ian: Yeah, the slot is open for someone else now.
John: There are certain requirements that we insisted that the Folk Fest maintained to get those weekends, which is donating a portion of the proceeds to the Multiple Myeloma Foundation, which is a cause very near and dear to the staff of the Blues Café’s heart.
Dennis: Ten is a nice round number. If we didn’t stop at 10 we’d have to do this for 15 years.
Ian: At least.
Dennis: Yeah at least, if we did it for 15 years we’d have to go 20.
Ian: We’re ready to start new things.